Book Review: Studies In Hittite Historical Phonology

Studies In Hittite Historical Phonology, by H. Craig Melchert

A book like this is going to have extremely limited appeal, and admittedly I read it because of my interest in obscure ancient languages and comparative linguistics.  This book demonstrates the sort of work that is necessary to demonstrate how it is that a given extinct language that we have some kind of textual evidence for can be said to be part of a much larger language family, namely the Indo-European family.  Languages have particular consistent changes that occur over time and by recognizing these changes we can see how various languages are part of the same family even if they are distant cousins.  And that is certainly the case with Hittite, which has some family resemblances with the Greek and Italian subfamilies of the Indo-European family and some loan words from the Indo-Aryan subfamily of the Indo-European family but which is unsurprisingly closest to other extinct members of its own subfamily, which included at least three related Anatolian tongues and Luwian, a language attested well into the Iron Age.  If this is not exciting to you then this book will not be a very enjoyable read, let me assure you of that.  This book is written by and for language nerds.

This book is less than 200 pages long and is divided into several sections.  The first section discusses the reflexes of proto-Indo-European *w and *y in the Hittite language.  This involves about 75 pages or so of discussion that introduces the subject, provides various examples of the treatment of the initial *w and *y sound as well as the intervocalic *w and *y sound and the postconsonantal prevocalic *w and *y as well as the postvocalic and preconsonantal *w and *y and their othography in Hittite.  After that the author spends a lot of time discussing the vowels e and i in Hittite.  This involves a discussion of the vowels in Old Hittite, the consistency of e and i in that language over time, the alternating of those vowels in Old Hittite, and problematic cases.  This then leads to a discussion of e and i in Middle Hittite as well as their consistency, alternations, and problematic cases.  After that there is a look at these matters in Neo-Hittite, showing consistency, alternation, and problematic cases that the author wishes to explain to support his ideas about the language rules in Hittite that would match the Indo-European family as a whole.  After this there is a conclusion, thirteen excurses, and a Hittite index.

There is nothing wrong with being a language nerd.  I for one find it quite excellent when authors are able to examine languages and read sources carefully and come to an understanding of how it is that a language can shift over time and how it follows consistent rules and how words from a tongue that has not been spoken for more than 3000 years can be interpreted and understood with a fair chance at grasping their pronunciation.  This book quite wisely does not present itself as a final understanding of Hittite by any means, but it does work at putting Hittite within a linguistic context that helps it to be better understood by students in ancient languages who can then work to refine the erudition and understanding of the author and other scholars who have focused their attention on better being able to understand and interpret the texts and language of a lost world.  And since this lost world included at least three stages of a language extending over the course of some 400 years or more of literature, much of it of a legal or religious nature, it is all the more interesting to see such a world come to life again.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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